Brain Wracking Time!




From Groundhog Days – Intercourse on Time

By Melina Costello and David Arthur Walters

July 29, 2004



My Dear Madame Melina,

I am glad that you asked me to be fair to Professor McTaggart, to supply more information about his views on the nature of time, the past-present-future, in order to ascertain whether or not he was duped by linguistic machinations, “whether he failed to see through the transparency so obvious to you and me,” as you said. Although discussions of time may be a waste of time, I have some time on my hands today, and I feel obliged to respond as follows.

Time is hard to think about because we are not used to considering it as separate from the contents we call events. And therein is a clue to understanding what in tarnation McTaggart is talking about when he says, on the one hand, that the series, past, present, future, is essential to time, and, on the other hand, that time is unreal.

McTaggart’s The Unreality of Time is indeed obtuse to those of us who are unfamiliar with the philosophy of time. We wish he would have written the paper for us in the form of an extended brief setting forth his Proposition up front; giving us a History of the Question so that we may see what others have contributed to the subject; letting us know what the Occasion for the Question is and why we should even be interested; listing important Issues to consider; providing us with a clear and cogent Argument supporting the Proposition; and summing it all up with a short Conclusion. But the professor ploughs right into the subject as if he believes we are familiar with it. Perhaps not, so we must either wrack our brains over it, or turn to other professors for an explanation, or drop what some philosophers say is the most important subject of all time! Let’s wrack our brains.

McTaggart proposes that time is unreal. Time as we think of it requires change. There could be no change without this series: past, present, future. The terms of that trinity must be incompatible with one another if there is to be change, but the terms are also compatible and that is self-contradictory. Therefore time is unreal.

As requested, here are some choice statements from McTaggart.

“Having, as it seems to me, succeeded in proving that there can be no time without an A series (past, present, future), it remains to prove that an A series cannot exist, and therefore time cannot exist. This would involve that time is not real at all, since it is admitted that the only way in which time can be real is by existing….

“Two events are exactly in the same places in the time-series, relatively to one another, a million years before they take place, while each one of them is taking place, and when they are a million years in the past. The same is true of the relation of the moments to each other. Again, if the moments of time are to be distinguished as separate realities from the events that happen in them, the relation between an event and a moment is unvarying. Each moment is the same moment in the future, in the present, and in the past….

“Past, present and future are incompatible determinations. every event must be one or the other, but no event can be more than one. This is essential to the meaning of the terms….

“For time, as we have seen, involves change, and the only change we can get is from future to present, and from present to past….

“The characteristics, therefore, are incompatible. But every event has them all. If M is past, it has been present and future. If it is present, it has been future and will be past. Thus all the three incompatible terms are predicable of each event, which is obviously inconsistent with their being incompatible, and inconsistent with their producing change….”

To be continued in the Name of the Past, the Present, and the Future, as Time.

Your Favorite Groundhog


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